40-Year Study Shows Alcohol Is A Much Bigger Gateway Drug Than Cannabis

Take a moment and think back to the first time you took a sip of alcohol. For many Americans their relationship with booze began somewhere around adolescence. Cultural acceptance of alcohol can reaffirm it's not only 'okay' to use booze as a social lubricant but it's actually 'cool' to drink, especially during those difficult high school years.

Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in cooperation with Brian C. Bennett revealed an extensive 40-year study that pulled back the covers on a dirty little secret.

Alcohol is actually the gateway drug your momma told you about, not cannabis.

William Martin, director of the Baker Institute's Drug Policy Program recently shared the Brian C. Bennett Drug charts. On the organization's website Martin is quoted as saying, "Marijuana's reputation as a 'gateway' drug is not supported, even for more marijuana use. More than half of respondents under 60 have used it during their lifetime, but fewer than 10 percent use it regularly."

He went on to add, "Alcohol causes far more personal and social damage than any other drug. Illegal drugs comprise less than 20 percent of substance-use disorders in the U.S."

photo: 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Data shows Americans over the age of 12 used alcohol far more than illicit drugs. The chart above focuses on three crucial points to the study:

1. The stability of rates and patterns of drug use and drug problems over time.

2. The overwhelming role of alcohol.

3. The critical importance of age.

Substances monitored in the study include alcohol, illicit drugs and nonmedical use of prescription drugs. According to the Baker Institute website:

Figure 2 explains how this stability in usage rates can be true over time. Most people who use any potentially problematic drug don't use it for long after initial experimentation, and even those who use it frequently, even to the point of abuse, are quite likely to reduce their use significantly as they age. Year after year, decade after decade, the pattern repeats itself. As seen in this chart, using data from the 2013 and 2014 NSDUH, illicit drug use begins as early as age 12 and accelerates rather sharply, reaching a peak between ages 18 and 20, which are the prime years for risky behavior, particularly by young men. It then drops rapidly over the next two decades, influenced by such factors as academic demands, family and career responsibilities, hangovers and awareness that addiction is not a desirable state.

More than 80% of people 12 and over in the United States have used alcohol at some point in their lives. Two-thirds use alcohol occasionally each year and more than half of American use alcohol on a regular basis. Compare that with approximately 50% of people 12 and over who have tried marijuana in their life.

Maybe it's the constant onslaught of alcohol ads Americans see every day in magazines, on television, on billboards and online, once the alcohol industry gets its hooks in you, they aren't going to let you go very easily.

Booze vs. Weed

Let's break down alcohol use against cannabis use by age group. For Americans 12 and older there's a clear indication alcohol is a significantly bigger gateway drug.

For 8th graders around the pivotal age of 13 alcohol use has been waning, yet still outpaces marijuana use.

Looking at 10th grader behavior starts to show a behavioral change. Booze is still much more prevalent than cannabis.

And then once kids graduate and become adults, their relationship with alcohol remains steady over time.

Each year nearly 100,00 people die in the U.S. from alcohol related issues. On the other hand, cannabis famously has not led to any deaths. It begs the question why booze is legal and cannabis isn't.

In this election year many voters will have a chance to legalize cannabis in one form or another. If 40 years of data aren't enough to convince voters to legalize, maybe a better point to remember is that cannabis is medicine that actually saves people's lives. Alcohol is not.